Ivan Eland: Top Ten Things Not to Do in Iraq

By Ivan Eland

Ever since the Iraq Study Group (ISG) issued its recommendations, the debate in Washington has swirled around what to do about the mess in Iraq. Unfortunately, both the recommendations of the study group and the contradictory inclinations of the Bush administration are “bridges to nowhere.” Both groups are in denial about the chaos in Iraq and are not yet ready to offer the tough solutions that could stabilize the country. Perhaps they should accept the top ten things not to do in Iraq:

1. Don’t send more U.S. troops. By pursuing this course, neoconservative armchair generals—such as Frederick Kagan—who helped Bush get into this mess, want to help him dig the hole deeper. Yet the senior U.S. military officers on the ground in the Middle East are not keen on this option. They realize that the quagmire makes it impossible for U.S. forces to ever succeed, and they have been inclined toward withdrawal. Former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell seemed to reflect their views when he said that when deciding whether to send more troops, “I’d want to have a clear understanding of what it is they’re going for, how long they’re going for. And let’s be clear about something else.… There really are no additional troops. All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there, there longer and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops.” Without having a clearly defined reason for sending more troops, the policy collapses into the usual “show the Iraqis and the domestic political audience that the Bush administration means business.” But the domestic political audience has long soured on the war and wants the troops to begin coming home and the Iraqis, like Powell, realize that the troop increase is not sustainable in the long-term.

2. Don’t think that sending more U.S. troops is politically sustainable. In a democracy, putting more troops and money into a war that has lost public support rivals the stupidity of invading a country to bring democracy to a fragmented society with no prior democratic experience or culture.

3. Don’t use any extra forces to secure Baghdad. The Bush administration can’t seem to accept what the U.S. military command in Iraq has said: that more U.S. forces will only inflame Iraqi resistance. Recently, when the United States moved forces from other parts of Iraq into Baghdad, in an attempt to increase Baghdad’s security, violence flared in reaction to the augmented U.S. troop presence.

4. Don’t use any extra U.S. troops to train Iraqi forces. Even if the Iraqi army and police could be made larger and better quickly—which they can’t be—the biggest difficulty is not their competence. The main problem is that they will fight for their religious sect, ethnic group, or tribe, not for their country.

5. Don’t think that training Iraqi security forces is a viable U.S. exit strategy. Because of the fragmented nature of Iraqi society, training such forces is merely enabling one side’s combatants in an accelerating civil war. Many of those already trained are now operating as Shi’ite death squads attacking Sunnis.

6. Don’t think that the ISG’s proposed withdrawal of combat forces by early 2008, while retaining about half the 140,000 troops to train Iraqi forces, is a viable solution. In addition to making the long-term situation in Iraq worse (see item #5), this proposal was merely a “cut and hide” strategy by the bipartisan foreign policy elite to diminish the importance of Iraq in the 2008 elections. If combat troops are withdrawn, the less visible training mission would incur fewer U.S. casualties and generate less intense media coverage back home during the next election season.

7. Don’t pursue the “80 percent solution.” This proposal would abandon any attempt at reconciliation with the Sunnis and throw all of the diminishing U.S. influence behind the groups that effectively control the Iraqi government: the Shi’a, which make up 60 percent of Iraq’s population, and the Kurds, which make up another 20 percent. After the invasion, U.S. support defaulted to the Shi’a and Kurds because they were opposed to the rising Sunni insurgency. But the Shi’a have become more militant, have turned southern Iraq into an intolerant Islamic state, and have come under the influence of their sectarian brethren in Iran. Many of the Sunni guerrillas are thugs, but at least most are not religious militants. Besides, for long-term stability, all groups—including the Sunnis—have to be satisfied enough with any political settlement to attempt to quell violence from their members.

8. Don’t think that talking to Syria and Iran will pay big dividends in Iraq. Right after the invasion, these countries were afraid that they would be next and thus were more amenable to helping out the United States. Now, they are both delighted that they have the United States over a barrel—that is, bogged down in a quagmire and less likely to put them in the cross hairs. So they will be in no hurry to help U.S. forces extricate themselves from the tar baby. Although assistance to various groups in Iraq is coming from Syria and Iran, Iraqi violence appears to be funded mainly through kidnappings and organized crime. Thus, although talks should be initiated with Syria and Iran, even if they agree to help, that help will not dampen most of Iraq’s violence.

9. Don’t continue talking about democracy or victory in Iraq. Neither is possible, and such rhetoric makes withdrawal harder before either is achieved.

10. Don’t think Iraq can exist as a unified country. Iraq already has decentralized governance and militias dominating various areas. The United States should mediate a conclave of all Iraqi groups to recognize this decentralized governance and to negotiate a viable oil sharing agreement. The decentralization option is the only one that has any hope of reducing and compartmentalizing the violence. At this late date, however, even this option might not prevent unbridled mayhem.

-Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, Evaluator-in-Charge (national security and intelligence) for the U.S. General Accounting Office, and Investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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